The NSA and the End of Privacy (Or, Why We Don’t Care)

Upon hearing the news of the NSA phone records-breach-of-privacy-scandal, I was a bit surprised at my own reaction–or rather, lack of reaction. It seemed like just another step in the direction of the new normal, brought on technology and the ubiquity of social networks. Every day, it seems, we surrender more and more of our privacy to the gods of technology. We trade the commodity of our privacy for other goods: communication and expansion of personal networks, ease of purchasing, building our personal brand, and on it goes. Now, with the news of the NSA having accessed our personal phone records for years, we can nearly pass it off with a shrug. After all, we’re told that it’s a small price to pay for a great commodity we get in return: security (or, at the very least, the appearance of it).

This situation became crystal clear for me while reading the following segment from Moral Blindness. The book is a fascinating conversation on the idea and state of modernity (“Liquid Modernity”) between Leonidas Donskis and Zygmunt Bauman. Donskis notes that, in his books Liquid Modernity and Liquid Surveillance, Bauman,

proclaimed that privacy is dead…If so, political liberty is on the way to disappearance. And we seem far from beating the drums at the threat. Instead, we celebrate it as our newly acquired security and a chance in the manner of a reality show to remind the world about our existence. (26)

Baumann goes on to elaborate on the “Faustian pact” we have signed, in which we “consent to the loss of privacy as a reasonable price for the wonders offered in exchange.” We gladly give up our privacy to connect with our high school friends on Facebook and to connect with potential employers or clients via LinkedIN. How much more do we consent to the Faustian exchange when we can gain the “wonder” of security against unimaginable threats and terrors?

The water is running fast, we’re afloat, and it’s hard to see us swimming the other way in this “Liquid Modernity.” But what kind of security do we really have, if the price is privacy and (whatever sort we still might have), individual autonomy?

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  • Paul Prins

    Interesting perspective on it. Though I believe the conversation is short of the reality of what the NSA is really doing. By duplicating every packet of data sent around the web they have an archive of everything you’ve ever done online (banking, streamed movies, porn, affairs, felonies, et al – we all have things we didn’t wish were public knowledge). This gives them extreme power over individuals in leadership to force their perspective. After mining that data for embarrassing information on individuals they only need to let those in positions of power know that they have it in their possession. This takes was Hoover did as FBI director to a whole new level – and the first public example if it was the disgracing of former Director Petraeus at the CIA.

    It isn’t simply a loss of privacy, it is a loss of everything.

  • Susan_G1

    This is an important question, but I agree with you.

    When I first realized the depth of personal information acquisition, I was shocked and disappointed, but not by my loss of privacy. I was upset that Obama had lied to us. I read of other information leaks, and read Daniel Ellsburg’s words about government. He said all presidents lie, all the time, every week. The government couldn’t operate without lies. I read about Ellsburg extensively, because to me, he’s a hero.

    I realized how naive I was about government.

    However, perhaps that naivete has not been done in completely. Although I don’t like it, I don’t believe any real harm has been done to me. This is not an argument of “nothing to hide, nothing to fear.” I just see this as an extension of what has been happening to my privacy once I agreed to shop with credit cards, on, or signed up on Google. At first it bothered me that someone was keeping track of my purchases at the grocery store, and could use that information to form a profile of me, the “upside” being coupons for products I buy. Then it was books to recommend. But it is not as benign as people wanting my money. The profiles could be used for other purposes.

    Will this eventually lead to a Stalinesque nation? Here is my naivete. I think not. I think our constitution is strong. I think we have the constitution on our side, and we are the cause of the Patriot Act’s existence.